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How the Spice Girls taught me boys could like girls' things

Posted on Apr 27, 2021

In Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the titular character says, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” It could have been the Spice Girls’ mission statement. I was nine when I discovered the group, and a boy (though the verdict at school was very much out). I’ve been devoted ever since. They were five miniskirted Miss Jean Brodies, and they educated me in how to be a fan.

Before Wannabe, my idols were my mum and Princess Diana, by virtue of owning a tiara. Music belonged to the world of grownups and was of little interest compared with dressing my Barbies and eating Skittles, until I happened upon the Spice Girls’ calamitous debut video and became instantly obsessed. Here were five adults who behaved like children – hanging off each other, sticking their tongues out and dissolving into giggles any time an interviewer tried to corral them into answering a question. They were loud, boisterous and irreverent – everything I was told not to be – and did it all while looking like ambassadors from a better, brighter universe where everyone wore giant shoes.

I had little awareness of how a fan should behave, and my activities were initially restricted to drawing endless portraits of the group, and decorating myself with felt-tip replicas of their tattoos. (By the time I was 13, this escalated to sneaking out and actually getting Scary’s stomach tattoo, which migrated across my torso during a growth spurt.) I didn’t own a stereo, and it didn’t occur to me to actually buy the Wannabe single. This naivety was short-lived, and soon I had the album, an unofficial T-shirt and as many trading photo cards as my meagre pocket money would allow. The Spice Girls taught me how to be a consumer – that was their first legacy. Plenty of people took umbrage at their rampant capitalism, but I still get an inordinate amount of joy from hoarding pop merch. During the first lockdown, I redecorated my bedroom in official Spice Girls wallpaper. I have no regrets.

Spice Girls: Wannabe – video

As the band’s ringleaders, Melanie B and Geri were my favourites. When I found out that Melanie was from Leeds, I lobbied my mum to escort me on a pilgrimage there from our West Midlands home, considering it my Bethlehem. I was desperate to meet them and entered endless competitions, transforming a corner of my room into a chapel where I rehearsed what I would say if my wish ever came true. Years later, my sister’s boyfriend was looking for a file on our home computer and pulled up my forgotten application to become a Newsround Press Packer and interview Geri in her role as a UN Ambassador. We’d been asked to write an essay on an issue affecting children. The winning entry had been about access to clean water and included all sorts of stats. Mine was an impassioned diatribe against the evils of child sex trafficking – a subject I had no real knowledge of and hadn’t considered researching. I did not become a Press Packer.

My hard-hitting journalistic instincts would undo me a second time when I was selected to ask Geri a question on CD:UK. The question I most wanted to know the answer to was why she was having her Jaguar tattoo removed when she’d said it was a tribute to her dead father (a used-car salesman, hence the Jaguar). It was only when it was read out live, and I saw Geri’s flustered expression and fluffed answer, that I realised I should have gone for something softer and more in line with the other fans. What’s your favourite song maybe, or when can we see you on tour? The memory of her hunted look haunted me for years.

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Sometimes I wonder if the Spice Girls did me a disservice by preaching that you could be anything you wanted to be, talent be damned. They were certainly responsible for some very ill-advised public performances during my formative years (I knew the people who said I couldn’t sing were mistaken, because they said the same thing about Geri). I didn’t know I was gay when I discovered the group, but it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that many of the boys attracted to their “be yourself” ethos eventually came to the same conclusion. We’re certainly a loyal fanbase; in 2017, I relinquished my Glastonbury ticket when the festival clashed with Geri’s comeback performance at GAY. Again, zero regrets.

I was a fairly unhappy child, who already understood that life wasn’t easy for boys who liked girls’ things. The Spice Girls reassured me that change was possible, and that a bigger world existed, one where I could make my own rules. They weren’t lying.